It Was a Shakedown Cruise
In 1977 I was fairly newly Bill. I was maybe two years from being Billy to everyone who knew me. Our gardener, Mr Bowers, told me in the summer of 1975 that I would have to start introducing myself as Bill. Billy would not be appropriate for me. But, I had only ever been Billy, and my dad was Bill. To my family, I remained Billy for quite some time, but in what they used to call Junior High I became Bill.
That Spring, my mom’s dad died. I had two awesome grandfathers, and that one, Theodore Roosevelt Spears, checked out that Summer. It was an odd time in life. I wasn’t the child that I had been just months before. And not yet a man. When my grandfather saw me just before he passed away, he didn’t recognize me. It wasn’t dementia or anything like that. I had just gone through a growth spurt. In a short span of months I grew 9 inches taller. When I walked up to him, he had this look on his face that I had never seen. I guess strangers had seen that face, because that’s how he looked at me. It was a bit of a shock for me because I always received Grandpa’s face when he first saw me. All my life he had been looking at me a certain way, even before I knew I was being looked at. He had to be reintroduced to me. He took a double take. Then he gave me his face again. Gotta admit, it did shake me up just a little.
My mom picked me up on my way home when my Grandpa died. It was odd because that was back in the day when kids actually walked home from school. Also, Mom was a teacher, so she was not usually available to intercept me on my walk. This day, she drove up next to me, and told me to get in. I was in my 13 year old daze at that point, and did not pick up on any special signals. I don’t recall how the conversation began. I only recall how it ended.
At some point she gave me the news that my Grandfather had died. I don’t know what my brain was doing, but my body jumped out of the car at that moment. I took off running. So, you may be thinking, what does this have to do with being 13? I am not entirely sure now. I just know that if it had happened a year, or even 6 months earlier, I would have slowly started crying, and then cried walking into our house. But now, I had gone through this growth spurt and my brain just said, “do something.” So, I bolted like a stunt man. I was enraged. (I’m crying now). I don’t recall a thought that I had that can really be communicated, but I was enraged at the world for taking my Grandpa. That wasn’t my first family death. It was my third. I was a toddler when my great uncle Bob died. I barely noticed. I was 7 when my mom’s mom died. I was saddened. Seven years later when her husband died, I felt like we had already given enough. I was pissed.
So, I went walking. I had tears in my eyes, a little. More anger than sorrow. I stopped for a while to sit and just think. Let me mind catch up with my body, and just began to miss my Grandpa. Then this teenager, maybe 17 or so, saw me and walked up and smiled. He looked at my eyes and asked me if I had been smoking weed. (Now, I was already pissed off, and to top that off, I was a pretty puritanical 13 year old. I had only knowingly uttered my first curse word a year earlier). So, when the dude asked me that, I tilted my head and sat upright, and looked at him incredulously, and said, “no jackass, my grandfather just died.” He apologized to the back of my head as I was walking away. I went straight home.
So, at 13 you’re in this weird place. You’re not Mama’s baby, and you’re not a man. Whatever that place is, though, you feel it strongly. You go to the pool with your friends, you may still be wearing the speedo from the 1976 Olympics. We wore Ray Ban Aviator sunglasses, our speedos, and took a radio to the pool, and hung out. That Summer, “Shakedown Cruise” by Jay Ferguson came out. I’m embarrassed to admit that we loved that song. (I still do, shhhh!), because it’s horrible. It is musically bad, and the lyrics are moronic. But, I am telling you, 13 year old boys in Shaker Hts Ohio loved that song.
We’d be laying there on the glass, across the pool deck from the pool, wearing our sunglasses and listening to the radio. Then, when that song came on, we’d jump up and start dancing. It’s hard to describe how we’d do this. If you can get the song on the internet, call it up and then imagine this. We were standing there in our Speedo’s and sort of doing a twist. If you hear the baseline in the song, it goes, 1,2,3,4…bum..bum. So, we’d twist on the first four beats, then lift one foot into the wire on the fifth beat, and drop it on the sixth. Then repeat it, but twist the other way and lift and drop the other foot. It looked ridiculous. Girls thought we were silly, and immature. Our dads thought we would never grow up, and that is how we took after our mothers. We didn’t care. It felt powerful. We felt like giants with a sense of humor.
So, a shakedown cruise is a special cruise. It is essentially a test cruise for a vessel. You take it out and put it through its paces to see how it will perform under difficult conditions. In a military context, it is an inspection, and inspections are not fun. There is a tremendous amount of preparation, and everyone is under stress. But, 13 is too young to know anything about any of that. The song lyrics talk about being on a cruise with a crazy captain.
“The fever’s hot, and the winds are blowing cold
The captain’s crazy eye put the fear in your soul
I heard somebody cryin’ lord let this end
You know I’ll never go to sea again
It was a shakedown cruise…”
So, the Summer of 1977 was a “Shakedown Cruise”. We didn’t know what to do with our rapidly expanding energy…so we did that. In sadness and in joy, our response was to spaz.
Life returned to normal quickly, and we didn’t think it ever wouldn’t.
Not too many years later, I was marching to graduation from USMC Basic Training. We had just been through the longest 91 days of our lives. I wont go into detail about that, but basically it was 91 days of physical and mostly psychological torture that none of you could endure today. I don’t think I could either. It was crazy intense. You basically crawl into a little space in your own head because you lose ownership of everything else. You don’t even own your facial expressions or eyeball movement. You need permission for those. So, it is a bit of a shakedown cruise. You go for 91 days seeing how much your body can take, and your mind. It breaks many. And on the way to that graduation, the Drill Instructor chanted a cadence that sounded a bit like Shakedown Cruise. In that cadence, within sight of the parade ground stands, the Drill Instructor said, “I know I’ll go to heaven ‘cuz I’ve been through Hell”. Part of me was repeating that back as we marched. Another part of me was saying, “FUCK YEAH, WE DID.” All in my headspace, of course.
That headspace didn’t exist like that when I was 13. It was all dancing on the grass in front of anybody…in a speedo. By the time I was 21, I could low crawl up to you in the dark, grab you from behind and slit your throat, without you hearing a sound. Also, if that action had been ordered in pursuit of some bigger goal, I could do it without a second thought. I’d sleep like a baby. And that was all because somewhere at that same time, there we 13 year old and Grandpas, and Moms and Dads, and sisters and brothers who needed that protection. At the same time, those moms and dads were doing things for me. The list is long. Even some grandads were active making contributions to our society that just kind of worked. It was a shakedown cruise.
Fast forward to 2016. I noted for a woman to become President of the United States. I didn’t vote for her because she was a woman. I voted for her because she was the most qualified person to ever have run for the office, and our politics mostly agreed. She was defeated though. I mean, sort of. She won the popular vote by several million voted, but lost the Electoral College. Wait, what?
But, ok. That’s how it goes. A vestige of the slave owning society that was what we were as a country had rolled over and made the single least qualified man President of the United States over someone with superior qualifications to anyone who had ever heard the office.
“Shakedown, shakin’ in my shoes.”
But the Constitution, such that it is, held. It functioned as it was designed. Unfortunately. And over the next four years, that President conducted himself in a manner that would make Nero blush. He has been bad. And in all of that time, we, the resistance, have known that all we had to do is organize, turn out, and vote. A lot of shit happened on that cruise, but we still managed to vote the “crazy captain” out.”
By this time, my mental space is all disordered. The ship of state does not appear to be functioning properly. The captain has essentially been passed over, and we still don’t know what we will have on January 20, 2021.
We have all done quite a lot in support of this country. We love this country. My great grandparents living in Jim Crow Alabama named one of their sons Theodore Roosevelt Spears. That was not because they were not good shipmates. They were on board.
Last week, the crazy captain sought options for attacking Iran.
“Lord, let this end.”
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